Clipping Sherlock’s Wings

Mr Holmes

I just caught the movie “Mr. Holmes,” which purports to be a story about the “real” Sherlock Holmes when he is in retirement. It has a wonderful cast, a beautiful production design, and sensitive direction by Bill Condon – and it’s a lugubrious piece of sentimental tripe. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of logic and the human mind, but “Mr. Holmes” is a stealth attack against these virtues. Camouflaged as an homage to a beloved pop-cultural icon, it actually turns Sherlock into the Tin Man, and then gives him a heart, while taking away his brain.

“Mr. Holmes” gives us no fiendishly clever crimes or charismatic villains. Instead we get two rather drab little domestic tragedies, and one rather drab little domestic drama. Set just after World War II, when Holmes is about 90 years old and slowly losing his mind to senile dementia, the movie slowly cycles through the following story lines:

  1. Sherlock slowly befriends the son of his housekeeper, and teaches him how to care for honeybees.
  2. Sherlock visits Japan in search of an herb that can cure senile dementia. His host is a fan of the “fictionalized” accounts of Sherlock’s cases that Dr. Watson wrote.
  3. Sherlock strives to remember his last case, some 20 or 30 years earlier. Something about it caused him to retire from detective work. He does indeed remember, and the case involved a young wife in despair after two miscarriages.

Let’s start with that last case. It arrives shortly after Watson has departed to begin married life, when Sherlock is hired by a frustrated young husband. The man’s wife talks to her dead babies, and might be visiting a music teacher/medium who encourages that sort of thing. The intolerant young husband wants that to stop, of course. Sherlock discovers that the wife is not visiting the suspect teacher, but is rather planning her own suicide. He and the wife have one meeting, and one conversation. He tells her he knows what she intends to do. She responds with something like a marriage proposal, in which two lonely people can share – something. He gently declines, and though she seems to reject suicide and pours out the poison she has in her purse, she soon after throws herself in front of a speeding train. This causes Sherlock to sink into a depressive guilt so profound he retires and moves to the country. (!?!) Towards the end of the movie he comes to think he should have saved the poor woman by telling her some comforting lies. (?!?)

If you are gay, you’ve met, or know someone who has met, a guy who wants to move in and get married after one date. That’s a red flag, and the sensible course of action is retreat. But the addled mind of “Mr. Holmes” seems to believe that one good cry with a new acquaintance will solve the poor woman’s despair. It believes that Sherlock can merely pretend to accept her proposal, and save her without actually taking on the momentous responsibility that’s required. Need I say that this is bonkers? What’s more, the Sherlock Holmes I know would get this.

Onto drab domestic tragedy number two. The father of Sherlock’s Japanese host deserted the family some 20 years earlier. The man had been in England, and he had sent his son a copy of Dr. Watson’s stories about Sherlock. He also sent a letter that said after meeting with the real Sherlock, he had decided not to return to Japan. Now that he has the real Sherlock as a guest, the wounded man demands an explanation – and he gets the truth. Which is that Sherlock never met the man, and that the letter was the lie. As a tactless aside, Sherlock calls the father a coward. (Super smart people like Sherlock never have any tact, of course. They are too rational for it.) But once back in England, after his epiphany about lying to the despairing young wife, Sherlock writes his Japanese host a letter. In it he claims that he did indeed meet with the faithless father. He explains that the man had been volunteering for some sort of secret service to His Majesty’s Government, and thus unable to ever again see his family. (!?!) So at Sherlock’s suggestion he writes to tell them goodbye – without any real explanation. (!?!)

I am again non-plussed. Telling a Japanese man in 1946 that his father abandoned him for service to a foreign government would have been of dubious therapeutic value. So says I. For one, Japanese culture takes loyalty to the home team very seriously, and for two, it had just gone to war with Great Britain. Speaking of the war, guess where Sherlock and his young host search for that medicinal herb? Hiroshima! In fact, they dig up the precious plant within site of ground zero – no worries about radiation poisoning for them!

Why Hiroshima? I’m not sure, but I suspect the movie, and the book it is based on, want a cheap way to establish their moral seriousness. Hiroshima is an easy shorthand for “war is bad.” Yet the complicated history of that terrible tragedy is still a fraught subject, and “Mr. Holmes” does nothing at all to address it. Instead, we get a quick scene where Sherlock reacts in naive dismay to the sight of some radiation burns. Again, who is this man? Sherlock would have lived in England through two long, bitter, hard-fought world wars. I cannot believe this is the first time he would have come face to face with the ghastly damage they inflicted. And here’s another point – if Sherlock is kind-hearted enough to gasp at the wounds of a stranger, how come he brutally calls his host’s father a coward?

I won’t go into Sherlock’s friendship with the young son of his housekeeper, because while it is pleasant, it is pointless. Nor will I talk about the bee keeping, because I don’t know what the hell that was all about. Rather, I’ll zip forward to the final image, where Sherlock makes a little stone funeral arrangement to dead friends and relatives and starts praying over it – for now that he is approaching death and slowly losing his mind, now that he has humbly understood the importance of feelings over facts, he finally appreciates……God?

Post Script

“Mr. Holmes” is based on the novel “A Slight Trick Of The Mind,” by Mitch Cullen. I have not read this book, but after I saw the movie I suspected the author was a conservative Catholic – what with the undead unborn babies, the trauma over suicide, and the faith in the healing power of lies. Turns out I was wrong, because on a Facebook post where he (justly) rants against Kim Davis, Cullen says he isn’t a Christian. But he is an American, so perhaps his distrust of logical intelligence is merely cultural, and not religious. I also discovered that he and his partner (maybe husband) Peter I. Chang live part-time in Tokyo. This explains the mysterious inclusion of a Japan story line. Alas, it does not justify it. Still, I wish Mitch and Peter a happy life together!

 

Good Morals Aren’t Based On God

We Want You All

Last week three dramatic flame-outs highlighted the eye-watering hypocrisy, self-serving cruelty, and undemocratic values of the “Faith & Family” crowd.

First up was Fox News host and staunch Catholic Bill O’Reilly, who just lost a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife. (What’s a staunch Catholic doing divorcing his wife? You got me there.) Gawker reported that court testimony revealed one of Bill’s daughters had witnessed him dragging her mother down a flight of stairs by the neck. Interesting behavior for a man who, according to brainyquote.com, once said this, “The measure of a decent human being is how he or she treats the defenseless.” Also interesting is this comment from Grace Vuoto’s mostly positive review of O’Reilly’s 2008 memoir for the conservative Washington Times:

There are omissions, too. His relationships with women, apart from references to his mother and the nuns, are largely unmentioned. He is silent about his marriage and children. Readers are left to wonder to what extent the traditional values he champions pervade his personal and family life. In this respect, the book is incomplete.

Indeed.

Next up was Matthew Makela, a Lutheran pastor in Michigan. A married man with five children, he publicly endorsed the idea that same-sex attraction was a sin akin to alcoholism, and defined gay marriage as a threat to the family. Then Queerty.com posted images and comments from his Grindr account where he cruised the web looking for hook-ups with other men. This forced his resignation from the church, and it also inspired two members of his congregation to publicly accuse him of bigotry and cruelty. Jennifer Kish and her teenage son Tyler spoke on local TV and charged that Makela had earlier tried to shame and frighten Tyler into staying in the closet. Makela had warned the teenager that if he insisted on embracing a “homosexual lifestyle” he might as well kill himself because he was going to go to hell. (On Grindr Makela described himself as a top who likes to cuddle.)

Finally, we have Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the very evangelical family that stars in the wildly popular, if just suspended, reality TV show “19 Kids And Counting.” Thanks to some intrepid reporting by In Touch magazine, we now know that 2 years before the family became celebrities a 14 going on 15-year-old Josh sexually molested a number of very young girls, some of whom were his sisters. What followed was a long cover-up by his parents, and it is a sordid tale indeed. Jim Bob and Michelle turned to people in their religious community to give Josh lectures and informal therapy. One was Bill Gothard who ran a Christian “treatment” center. In 2014 he resigned over allegations that he had sexually harassed at least 30 women. (Hobby Lobby owner and billionaire David Green provided crucial funding for the center, reports Raw Story.) Another was a state trooper who is now serving a 56 year prison term for child pornography. In his public apology, Josh said that his parents helped arrange counseling for his victims (and sisters), but no details about what that entailed are known. However, we do know that the whole happy family continued to live in the same house as the TV cameras rolled.

This is a matter of public concern because the Duggars have used their celebrity to promote themselves as role models and campaign for the right to discriminate based on Christian beliefs. Until the scandal broke, Josh, now a family man himself, worked as the executive director of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council. It’s mission is to “advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.” And here’s a typical statement by Robert Knight, its director of cultural studies, “Gaining access to children has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement.”

The Duggars have also been involved in presidential politics, and have enthusiastically endorsed their ex-governor, Mike Huckabee. He in turn has enthusiastically endorsed them, saying at one point that they are an “example of something that’s wholesome and wonderful.” So invested is Huckabee in the Duggars, that after the scandal broke he doubled down and defended them on Facebook:

“[My wife] Janet and I love Jim Bob and Michelle and their entire family. They are no more perfect than any family, but their Christian witness is not marred in our eyes because following Christ is not a declaration of our perfection, but of HIS perfection.”

So now this “wholesome and wonderful” family is “no more perfect than any family”! But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s all about God and HIS perfection. Which shows that Huckabee’s real concern is defending the idea that America should be a Christian theocracy. He elaborated on this idea a couple of weeks ago when he officially entered the race for the 2016 presidential election:

“But we’ve lost our way morally…and are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage. Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law and enforce it … The Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

Painting the Supreme Court as some sort of Inquisition is kind of funny, but he’s serious about overthrowing our democratic and secular government in the name of the “laws” of “nature’s God.” Presumably we’ll need some sort of priesthood to interpret those laws for us, and Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, no doubt feels eminently qualified for such a post. Ayatollah Huckabee for president!

Mysterious Favorites

Here’s a wonderful quote from an article Teju Cole recently wrote for The New Yorker:

“Few things are more mysterious than someone else’s favorite film. To hear it named is to be puzzled. You appreciate its merits but not how it can be preferable to all others. Perhaps your favorite film isn’t the one that you like best but the one that likes you best. It confirms you on the first encounter, and goes on to shape you in some irreversible way. Often, you first see it when you’re young, but not too young, and on each subsequent viewing it is a home to which you return.”

Dolce & Gabbana & The Italian Freakout

By Italian I really mean Catholic. And I am referring to the recent comments by gay fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana that “We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one…No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”  (This is a translation into English I found in an article at The Telegraph.) I’d support Elton John’s angry call to boycott the D&G brand, if only I could afford it in the first place.

So no boycott for me, but maybe there’s a chance for some self-promotion, as the D&G comments reminded me of a movie review I wrote some years ago! It is the Italian beefsteak epic The Giant of Metropolis from 1961, and it is practically a manifesto of the reactionary ethos that D&G remain loyal to. A bizarre re-telling of the Atlantis myth, it has evil king Yotar offending nature by attempting to transplant the brain of his father into the head of his 12-year-old son. This and other confusing schemes apparently leads to “Unforeseen developments in the orbiting of the planets have upset in a most serious manner the normal equilibrium of the forces of the inter-planetary scale!” We also have Obro, an amiable muscleman who gets captured and tortured by Yotar. This somehow convinces Yotar’s rebellious daughter Mercede that Obro is some sort of Christ figure who is everywhere, invisible, and invincible. So she sets Obro free, and at the first opportunity falls into his arms and pleads “Show me what it is to live Obro!” Which is he presumably does, after the fade out.

15_smooch

To quote the movie itself:

…When the scientists of Metropolis attempted to penetrate the secret of death, nature rebelled, causing universal destruction…

…love alone triumphed…

…and remained the sole source of life…

And remember, they were this upset back in 1961, long before the concept of “gay adoption” was born! My review of the whole confounding movie can be found at The Monster Shack web site:

http://www.monstershack.net/sp/index.php/the-giant-of-metropolis-1961/

9_dance_2

An unnatural mass wedding ceremony held in Metropolis, before it is destroyed.

THE FALL OF JUPITER ASCENDING

jupiter-ascending

Poor Lana and Andy Wachowski. After the beating they took with Cloud Atlas, they’ve just dropped another bomb with Jupiter Ascending. Here’s a typical reaction, from Nick Schager writing for The Daily Beast, “Jupiter Ascending, from The Matrix masterminds Lana and Andy Wachowski, is a stew of sci-fi blockbuster cinema clichés drenched in high-tech razzle-dazzle.” I’ve written a lot of screeds against movie crap lately, but here I’d like to defend the Wachowskis, up to a point. Jupiter Ascending is a mixed bag to be sure, but I don’t think it really falls down until the last act. True, there are too many over-the-top chase/fight scenes that go on for too long, but that’s true of just about every Hollywood CGI extravaganza these days. Another common fault is showing us many gorgeous fantasy vistas crammed full of amazing detail, only to whisk them away after 2 or 3 seconds. Would it kill the Entertainment Complex to let us drink in the detail for another 3 or 4 seconds? Apparently, yes.

On the other hand, Schager sounds like too many American critics when he complains about “the monotony of lengthy chats about royal lineage, intergalactic economies, and other fairy tale nonsense” and “dialogue equally defined by ridiculously fanciful terms and leaden exposition.” How a filmmaker is supposed to present a rich fantasy world without fanciful terms or exposition is beyond me, and I’m getting tired of the stubborn inability of even educated and intelligent viewers like Schager to sit still and listen for a few minutes.

Besides, Schager’s “fairy tale nonsense” has a political edge that I think works in in the Wachowskis’ favor. For the villains are super rich one-percenters that harvest whole planets full of human beings in order to produce a fountain of youth serum. Such a cruel economy is an all too believable foundation for the deceit and the violence that fuels the movie, and the villains are not the problem. The problem comes with the heroine, and I’ll take brief walk through the complicated plot, spoilers included, to explain why.

Poor Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a maid in Chicago who spends her time cleaning other people’s toilets. Her mom is great (she left Russia after house robbers murdered Jupiter’s father), but her family is obnoxiously uncouth, as only an extended ethnic family can be. And she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Not surprisingly, she hates her life. Happily, she is saved from this tedious hell when space aliens attempt to assassinate her: because she is then rescued by a handsome space bounty hunter named Caine Wise (played by dreamy Channing Tatum, who looks great. Even with pointy ears.) Through him, she learns that she is the exact genetic double, a “recurrence,” of a recently murdered space queen. As such, she is entitled to inherit said space queen’s property, which includes the valuable “estate” that is the planet earth. The problem with this rags to riches development is that the queen’s oldest son has no intention of letting Jupiter get her grubby little hands on all the goodies he murdered mommy for. (Oops – spoiler alert.) His name is Balem Abrasax, and he’s played full-out by Eddie Redmayne in a much derided performance that I actually enjoyed.

jupiter

Caine Wise. Part man, part wolf. All hunk!

Caine saves Jupiter from death again and again, and in the process kills or wounds about 332 opponents. So Jupiter falls in love with him. Usually I gag at this sort of thing, but I have a big crush on Channing, so I’m just as guilty as Jupiter here. I’m also OK with the fact that Jupiter is not an expert kung-fu warrior, so she needs to be rescued when professional killers are sent after her. Where I do have a problem is that she is such an aw shucks, down-home, just-plain-folks kind of girl that the big picture implications of her changed estate never dawn on her. All she can think about is Caine’s apparent coldness, so she has no brain room left for something as abstract as the fate of the planet earth. The tragic irony here is that he, of course, is in love with her. Only now that she’s a member of the power elite of the universe, how can he, a lowly bounty hunter, hope to win her heart? He can’t, and so he blows her off when she throws herself at him.

After many, many chase scenes, and an amusing satire on bureaucratic red tape, Jupiter officially claims title to her property. But she is then faced with a cruel choice, because Balem kidnaps her horrid family and threatens to murder them if she doesn’t turn over the property to him. At this point she knows what people like Balem do to the planets they own – so she races off, alone, to his citadel in Jupiter’s red spot. Surrounded by his henchmen and completely in his power, she is about to sign over her inheritance, when it finally dawns on her that he will harvest the entire population of earth to process more eternal youth serum. I’m happy to say that she then refuses, and is rescued once more by Caine. Belam falls off an exploding space platform and (probably) dies.

Now we come to the big, happy finish where a revitalized Jupiter realizes she actually enjoys cleaning other people’s toilets! I kid you not, she goes back to her old life. (I’m all for celebrating the worth of blue-collar labor, but really?) Her awful extended family seems to have been replaced by space clones, and they are now thoughtful and considerate. Even better, she now has a boyfriend – because Caine isn’t blowing her off anymore! We close with them light-heartedly zooming around the skyscrapers of Chicago using hyper-advanced space technology.

Wait, doesn’t that mean that thousands of office workers will see them zooming around? Yes it does, but earlier in the movie we learned that the super advanced space humans that “own” the earth routinely erase our memories whenever we witness their hyper-advanced technology. And now Jupiter owns the earth, so…Is this kind of twisted power play the real reason she smiles when she cleans the toilets of the rich? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s right here that Jupiter Ascending finally lost me.

Hollywood giveth with one hand, and it taketh away with another. All the class-conscious political savvy of the set up is undermined by making Jupiter Jones such a dim bulb. This movie was planned as the beginning of a franchise, so maybe they delayed giving her an intellectual awakening for a future installment. Ditto any temptations or dark emotions. And so Jupiter as a character is dramatically inert, and her movie gets sucked into a gravity well of dopey sentimentality.

Ah, but she snags that dreamy boyfriend, and this is enough to win the movie at least some fans. As Hitflix.com reports, “Jupiter Ascending” has broken new ground by becoming the first cult classic sci-fi film that will be buoyed into infamy by young women… Every woman who ever wrote herself into her favorite universe via fanfic, every girl who created an amnesiac elven vampire princess and role-played in a chat room, every chick who ever wanted a blaster by her side and a submissive werewolf boyfriend at her back, every one of them whispered, “Finally. It is our time.” – Well, I wish they’d hold out for a better heroine, but it could be worse. Caine could be like the entitled billionaire “hero” in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Jupiter-Ascending-Eddie-Redmayne-posterJamie-Dornan-as-Christian-Grey

One’s a dreamboat. The other’s a villain.

Postscript: It would have been nice if at least one (non-villain) character in Jupiter Ascending was gay.

A Farewell To Miracles

This is my last entry on Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World.

The Final Countdown

Having given a blog entry to each of the first 3 miracles, I’ll wrap up this book review by treating the final 4 with an overview. They are:

        4. The Battle of Poiters
        5. The Mongols Decision not to invade Europe
        6. The Old World colonizes the New World
        7. The Battle of Britain

I am in complete agreement with the authors that Great Britain’s stand against Hitler’s Germany is something to celebrate. I’m also happy that the Mongols decided to call off their invasion of Europe in the 1240’s, so I won’t comment on these chapters. I would, however, like to look a bit at the remaining two miracles.

Brother Religions

The Battle of Poiters in AD 732 is the one that “preserved a Christian Europe” by halting an Islamic conquest of the continent. No argument from me on the military importance of this battle, but let’s look at the authors’ notes on why this was important for the concepts of freedom and democracy.

They acknowledge that the Islamic world initially “led the world in technological and cultural advances.” Which is true. Then they note that it seemed to “freeze” and fall behind the west. Why? They propose a list of interesting reasons:

  1. Fundamentalist Islam defined law as rules coming down from God, not something created by men.
  2. Therefore, there was no separation of church and state.
  3. Personal freedom, including the right to protest an unjust law, was not promoted. After all, if laws come from God, how could a good Muslim protest them?
  4. As the Islamic empires grew prosperous, the religion’s liberal views about the virtue of equality gave way to an elitism that favored the rich and powerful.
  5. The lack of secular education stifled innovation.

This was oh so very different from the Christian West because that part of the world “forged ahead in the sciences, technology, cultural advancements, and in the advancements in religious thought that led to the concepts of personal freedom and self-government.” No sirs, even according to your own book, the concepts of personal freedom and self-government were inventions of Pagan Greece. What it avoids is discussing how the Christian church often tried to stifle them. It’s fascinating, and depressing, how the authors can criticize the authoritarian nature of monotheism in Islam, yet celebrate that very thing in their own Christian faith.

The Joy of Empire

The most gobsmacking chapter in the book is one that tries to paint Europe’s invasion and colonization of the New World as a happy victory for personal freedom. The havoc wrought on the native peoples by the European invasion has troubled my own mind since grade school. I was studying history in the 4th grade when a light bulb went on over my head: the cowboys weren’t the good guys, they were the bad guys! Not an easy thing to live with for Euro-Americans. I remember explaining this unease to a fellow college student. He was a super sweet guy from Colorado, and he was completely untroubled. “Well it’s better than us living in some hell-hole in Europe!” he exclaimed.

The Stewarts, who hail from Utah, aren’t quite that simplistic. They posit that the conquest of the New World gave Europe the confidence and riches necessary to create a powerful and advanced civilization. That the conquest provided Europe with treasure and pride is impossible to argue with. That this advanced the concepts of personal freedom is ridiculous – until we come to the English colonists who dreamed up an independent and democratic nation. And even here it’s a complicated thing. For this nation, founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” was partly a slave state itself until the incomplete victory that was the Civil War. Amazingly, Sherman’s March, a brutal military campaign that smashed a slave state, is not one of the 7 miracles of freedom.

Living With Original Sin

At it’s core, this book isn’t history, but a founding myth that seeks to erase the moral stain left by the violence, theft, and enslavement that came with the New World conquest. None of that bad stuff really counted, the authors imply, because it was committed by Christians who valued personal freedom – and with the spoils of New World empire we were able to spread our enlightened values across the globe! Hurray for us.

I guess that’s the big challenge for secular humanists. We need to combat the narcotic appeal of tribal chauvinism with an inspiring vision of our own. How by seeing the truth about ourselves and our pasts, we can build a more just society.

To be continued…

A Bridge Too Far

This is part three (Miracle at the Bridge) of my review of The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points That Saved The World, by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart.

How to Trip Over Your Own Tipping Point

Chapter Three brings us to Rome, circa 300 AD, and the emperor Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The authors’ horror of large states, big government, and theocracy miraculously fall away as they trip over themselves to convince the reader that this was a wonderful thing. Chapter Three is, in fact, a Pandora’s Box of junk history as the authors zoom back and forth in time and race all over the world in a frantic attempt to prove that everything good in the Western tradition comes from Christianity. It’s such a mess I began to wonder if I was wasting my time engaging with it. Then I remembered that Ted Stewart is a federal judge, Chris Stewart is a U.S. congressman, and their book made The New York Times bestseller list. So yes, it’s worthwhile.

OK, so let’s go down the list, and see how well Stewart & Stewart defend their points.

Human Rights and Democracy

Stewart & Stewart tell us that David Brog, author of something called In Defense of Faith, “show(s) that the Judeo-Christian values were instrumental in compelling individuals to respect and even to fight for the rights of others, even those outside of their own family, group, or people.” Believe it or not, this is their entire argument! And since they can’t be bothered to give any evidence for these claims in their own book, I don’t need to contradict them.

All warmed up, they continue, “Another of the most important foundations for Western political thought is the belief that certain rights are derived from God, not from man.” Which rights these are, and where they can be found in the Bible, is not stated. But they do tell us it was all articulated by a group of “Early Christian philosophers.” Along with these anonymous philosophers is an unnamed contemporary scholar who “shows” that the “nature of the covenant relationship between God and His people is the foundation for the covenant relationship that is known as constitutionalism.” That scholar is Jacob Neusner. Perhaps he is only named in the footnotes because Google tells me he once said Christians should “embrace Judaism.” Not that it matters, because 7 Miracles ends up refuting the very argument it wants to champion!

“The examples of the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic, with their various experiments in democracy, were vitally important to those European political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who pronounced the philosophical foundations for self-government. Many of the ideas and institutions of these classical giants were adopted by the Europeans, giving them a significant jump start toward modern civilization.”

Amazing. Simply amazing.

Peace

The authors are eager to dispute the charge that Christianity has inspired “war, atrocities, bloodshed,” and genocide. To do this, they quote several Christian historians who assert that Christianity is wonderful. Then, a few pages later, we get this:

“Far too many wars have been waged in the name of Christianity, or a favored sect of Christianity, and millions of innocents have died as a result of those wars.”

OK, so much for that!

Reason and Logic

In chapter two, we were told these are the precious cultural legacy of classical Greece. In Chapter three, the “West” is more logical than the rest of the world because “Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture.”

Centuries of reasoning to understand what God may have meant. Wow.

Science

Again, the authors serve up lots of talk about how free the thinking was in various Christian institutions, but give no examples. Nor do they mention Galileo’s heresy trial in the 1630’s, or today’s Christian war against the concept of evolution. But they do admit to this:

“For too long, the Christian church attempted to keep the people under its control by withholding the holy scriptures from them. In the name of Christianity, some scientific and technological advances have been blocked.”

And so they admit to the static, authoritarian, and theocratic nature of medieval and renaissance Christianity.

Capitalism

Since America is a capitalist nation, it is vitally important for Stewart & Stewart to prove that God invented capitalism! In so doing they sink to a new low in junk history. According to this book, “Capitalism was a system that evolved distinctly and uniquely in the West, its beginnings traced to the large Christian monasteries that sprang up throughout much of Europe.”

I’ve never encountered this idea in any of the history I’ve studied in my life, and the authors don’t even quote a Christian propagandist as a source. They just make the assertion and move on.

The End of Slavery

Finally, here’s the piece de la resistance in self-delusion. Did the emperor Constantine outlaw slavery when he made the Roman Empire Christian? No. But Christianity was still the key to ending slavery because “Later Christians would act as emissaries for peace, fighting against the horrors of slavery and for the rights of the “Indians” found in the New World.” … I’m repeating myself, I know, but…wow.

It Sucks To Be Poor

What little time we do spend in 3rd century Rome is mostly with a fictitious Christian family. They are so miserably poor that they need to send the children out into the trash heaps to scavenge bits of food and cloth. And yet, because they are Christian, they are also honest, kind, humble, brave, and ever thankful for the religion that, the authors claim, is the cause of the terrible abuse and discrimination they suffer at the hands of their neighbors.

After Constantine comes to power we get a heart warming scene of triumph because this family is finally free – free! – to paint a cross on their front door. Whether or not they are also free from their terrible poverty – the poverty the authors used to indict Pagan Rome for heartlessness and injustice – that is left unsaid.

The Miracle At The Bridge

So what is the miracle at the heart of this chapter? Is it Constantine’s claim to have seen a burning cross in the sky, along with the words, “in this sign, you will conquer”? Actually, no. The authors, aware there is no proof of this supernatural event, are careful to say he “reportedly” saw the cross. But they need a miracle for each chapter, so they find something else. And it is grim as well as violent.

Before Constantine became the undisputed Caesar of the whole empire, he had to defeat his rival Maxentius in a battle before the gates of Rome. Maxentius had heard an omen of his own, and he grew careless and over-confident. He chose to meet Constantine’s forces at a spot where his own army could not easily retreat. So when he was out-generaled by Constantine, his retreat turned into a route. He, along with many of his own men, where crowded off a narrow bridge, and they drowned in the river below. That’s the miracle. Ugh.

I still have 4 miracles to go, but I have a feeling the authors have pretty much shot their bolt with this one. If so, maybe I’ll just lump the remaining chapters into one short recap.

To be continued!

Miracle Number Two

The Greeks Save “The West”

This is part two in my chapter by chapter review of Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book, The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Save the World.

480 BC, Western Persia

Chapter Two opens with a drumbeat of doom as the Stewarts (who are not brothers, FYI) tell us: “The world is a warring place. It is a jarring, unforgiving, and violent place, with power and riches going mainly to the strong.” Then the curtain rises on another fabulous Cecil B. DeMille set. This time it is the enormous traveling throne room of Xerxes, master of the Persian Empire, and according to Stewart & Stewart:

“The spoils of war around him represented the Persians’ unbelievable wealth and power: gold from the Phoenicians, emeralds from the mines in the Azbek highlands, pearls from the mouth of the Nile, red sandalwood from the jungles of eastern India – the display of wealth dazzled like the sun.”

palace

This image from the movie “One Night With The King,” is pretty close to the scene in the book.

As in the palace of Sennacherib, two strong men are facing off. This time one is Demaratus, “He was a king. He was a Spartan. He was a warrior and a leader.”

The other is Xerxes, who was “ incredibly intimidating – dark and tall and strong…”

spartan king copy Xerxes

Historically accurate reconstructions of Damaratus and Xerxes!

A deposed king, Demaratus is also a traitor. Looking for revenge and power, he offers valuable intelligence to Xerxes, the oriental despot who is planning to conquer the freedom-loving city-states of Greece, including Sparta. But like Rabshakeh in Chapter one, he is also there to praise the Great King’s foes. Here are some of his lines:

“Spartans do not fight for a king or empire, my lord. They do not fight for riches or captured booty. They do not fight for greed or lust or power. They fight for something very different.” “They fight for each other. For their families. For the idea that men should live free.”

Cue a lot of sneering and insult from Xerxes, who is pretty much a carbon copy of Sennacherib. How can a collection of small and weak city-states stand up to the greatest empire the world had ever seen? Bah! And yet, chapter two is a lot better than one because this time the heroes have time on center stage as well. The first being, no real surprise here, Leonidas, the heroic commander of Thermopylae. And no real surprise here too, he’s hot,

“Tall. Dark-skinned. Dark-eyed. Thick arms. Leonidas was the epitome of everything a Spartan warrior was supposed to be. Strong as oak. Quick with a sword. Fearless. Intelligent.”

Leonidas copy

This historically accurate reconstruction of Leonidas is my offering to the gods Hormonio and Testosteronicus.

We also meet Themistocles, the brilliant admiral of the Athenian navy who probably did more than any other individual to rally and guide the Greeks to victory over the Persians. He’s the first military commander whose manly figure the authors do not drool over. This strikes me as an injustice, and one I feel compelled to rectify. So here goes!

The powerful muscles of his brawny arms gleamed in the early morning sun as Themistocles, proud admiral of the Athenian war fleet, leaned on a railing and surveyed the 300 ships under his command. His keen grey eyes, alight with the light of intelligence, shone piercingly from under his noble brow as his heart swelled with pride at the sight. But he was also troubled. As strong, and true, and brave as his sailors were, as committed to the cause of freedom and rights of free men as they were, would they be enough to stand against the might of the greatest empire the world had ever known? Turning from the railing, his tall, broad-shouldered figure cast an imposing shadow on the deck of his powerful trireme, pride of the Athenian fleet. Anacreon, the helmsman, watched with worshipful eyes as the admiral, more god than man, came up to him. Here was a captain: a real captain, and a real man. The kind of man who became a captain that a sailor would happily follow even into hell itself, thought the golden-haired youth. “When do we go against the Persians?” he asked, nervousness apparent in his ardent young voice. Themistocles looked deeply into the clear blue eyes of the brave youth, and they shared something that only men on the verge of risking death in the name of Liberty can share. Resting his strong, calloused hand on Anacreon’s smooth, well-muscled shoulder he said in a low voice that was charged with emotion, “We sail when the gods of Freedom command us to.”

Themistocles

A little drool for this historically accurate reconstruction of the hero of Salamis please!

Writing that was more fun than I want to admit, but back to the book! The major part of chapter two is devoted to explaining the tactical details of the four key battles at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, and here the authors are at their best. Clearly military history buffs themselves, their descriptions are clear, lively and fun to read. But the military details are beside the point. The failure of Persia to conquer the Greeks is important because:

“With its culture that valued freedom, individual liberty, and self-government, the Greek city-state was critical to the future development of the Western world. And although it is impossible to know how the history of Europe would have unfolded, this much is surely true: had the Greeks been defeated at Salamis – had their people been conquered by a power for whom the concepts of freedom and citizen did not even exist – history would have unfolded much differently.”

I’ll spend the rest of the review unpacking this statement, as it’s a good opportunity to revisit the standard view of a very important historical event.

Here Come The Spartans!

As the quote above says, the authors contend it was the city-state itself that gave birth to democracy. They continue, “Each city-state was small, locally governed, and in vibrant competition with its fellow Greek city-states…This facilitated innovation and creative genius.” They also quote The Greeks by J.H. Plumb, who explains that they were examples of “extreme chauvinism…highly individualistic and autonomous…all that had allowed the creation and growth of a free landowning citizenry like none other.”

One thing that strikes me is how much this sounds like conservative American doctrine: as in our pioneer tradition of individualism, states rights, and free-market capitalism. But is this answer sufficient? I won’t deny that the competing city-states were important to the vitality of the age, just look at the Italian Renaissance. But city-states were also a key to the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia – why didn’t they lead to democracy then? In fact, according to the authors, Mesopotamia led to the creation of “the East,” and “a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”

Settling for the half-digested notion that Greek democracy was born from the “vibrant competition” of “locally governed” city-states lets the authors avoid two things: a meaningful search for the factors that inspired the Greeks to experiment with new forms of government, and a frank examination of the darker aspects of their society.

Take the Sparta of Leonidas. (Athens is mentioned briefly as the city-state with the most advanced democratic system, but Sparta is the real hero of this section.) The authors are good enough to note how extreme and unique it was, even among the other city-states. How it was a “strange mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.” (But they don’t discuss what that actually meant.) How it did not rely on citizen-solders, but on men taken from a “master race” of pure Spartan blood. They continue, “Sparta sustained this warrior class through the efforts of the other citizens who engaged in all those fields forbidden to the warriors.” This is as close as they come to admitting that Sparta was a mini-empire that used the conquered as slave labor. That omission leaves them free to admire and to sympathize with Sparta’s militarism.

And why wouldn’t they? Remember that drumbeat of doom that opens the chapter? It vibrates with a fear that mirrors what the Spartans must have felt. For this “master race” was a minority in their own home, and they never forgot that the people who worked their estates might rise up and slaughter them. So in their quest to create the perfect warrior they segregated suitable boys at age eight, and raised them in a highly regulated, communal army barrack, where “a “Spartan meal” [was] insufficient to satisfy hunger, so thievery was encouraged. But one should never be caught, so cleverness and cunning were developed.” – Vibrant competition saves the day again!

Having been honest enough to air some of the dirty laundry, the authors end on a high note with a peon to Spartan virtue: “Women were revered, good manners and order in families were demanded, strong marriages were admired.” Again, these sounds like planks in the Republican Party’s platform. The Democratic Party platform too, for that matter. And full disclosure here, as a liberal, I’m all for good manners and strong marriages. I’m also for “order” in the family, if that doesn’t mean beating the children whenever they question daddy, or denying them the freedom to choose their own mates.

As for “revering” women, that’s a funny way to put it, because what they had more of in Sparta than in the rest of Greece was freedom. The state’s obsession with training and maintaining a ferocious military force meant that men were away from home most of the time. It was the women who ran the households, and they moved about in public with a freedom that shocked foreigners. Wanting healthy mothers that bred healthy children, Spartan girls also had sports training in fields such as running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing.

Which brings us to those “strong marriages,” the authors admire so much. Sparta’s focus on producing healthy children of the “master race” led to things like wife-sharing, where an older husband would allow a younger man to have sex with his wife, in the hopes this would produce a baby. Women were also free to divorce, and what’s more, they would keep their private wealth and, amazingly, their children.

For unlike most societies in recorded history, biological paternity, the identity of the father, didn’t matter so long as he was Spartan. Something else that was rare until modern times, the mothers had the rights of citizenship. These two radical innovations make Sparta, so awful in many ways, a fascinating place, and one that would have shocked and perplexed old school male chauvinists like the authors, had they ever visited.

There’s something else that would get their goat, pardon the phrase, and I’ll lead into it by noting an interesting marriage custom called “bride-capture.” A soldier who still lived in the military barracks could “secretly” get married by “kidnapping” a young woman – with her father’s permission, of course. They’d have a very brief, ur, honeymoon that night, but come sunrise, he was back in the barracks. What’s intriguing is that her friends would prepare her for the kidnapping by dressing her up in a man’s robe and sandals. And so we come to the shocking idea of man on man sex in the Spartan army. It happened. A lot. But you’d never know it to read this book – another sin of omission.

There Go The Persians!

I won’t argue against the main point of this chapter – that the Greeks had many amazing cultural achievements, and their victory against Persia preserved the idea of democratic government, which made the American, French, and other democratic revolutions possible. Still, there’s a note of ethnic chauvinism in the author’s celebration that makes me uncomfortable.

Several times throughout this chapter it is asserted that the words freedom and citizen did not even exist in Persian – or in any other Mediterranean language. This might be true, but I’ll have to do some due diligence before I accept this as fact. And that’s just the set up, here’s the pitch, “The Persians, for all their grandeur and might, left very little to the world of lasting value. Theirs was a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”

And they go even further, by quoting Cowley’s “What If” book again, that if the Greeks had lost, “In place of Hellenic philosophy and science, there would have been only the subsidized arts of divination and astrology, which were the appendages of imperial or religious bureaucracies and not governed by unfettered rational inquiry… We would live under a much different tradition today – one where writers are under death sentences, women secluded and veiled, free speech curtailed, government in the hands of the autocrats extended family, universities mere centers of religious zealotry, and the thought police in our living rooms and bedrooms.”

Wow. This is just too black and white. The Greeks are too perfect, and the line drawn from the Persia of Xerxes to the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini is too straight and direct.

Starting with the Greeks, they too had secluded women (except in Sparta), and state subsidized divination. Free speech could be curtailed, and writers placed under a death sentence – the most infamous example is the trial and execution of Socrates for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state,” and for “corrupting the youth.” (This is a horrible blemish on the record of my beloved Athens.)

Which brings us to “religious zealotry.” It’s an odd charge to lay at the feet of the Persians, when the authors acknowledge the tolerance of Cyrus the Great, the founder of that empire. He let the people worship whichever god they chose, and today he is celebrated by some as a pioneer in human rights. Tucked away in chapter two is another important development – it was Cyrus who let the exiled Jews of Babylon return to Judah. I’m curious why the authors don’t celebrate this as one of their miracles. I’m also confused at the authors’ sudden distaste for theocracy, because in chapter one they noted with approval how King Hezekiah, “purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion.” And lets see, what’s the next chapter about? Oh yes, it’s all about the Emperor Constantine forcing Christianity on the Roman Empire. Hurray for freedom!

To be continued…